Asian-Americans hope new Chicago caucus will restore clout

July 1, 2013

(WBEZ/ Bill Healy)
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) will lead Chicago City Council’s Asian-American Caucus. Many hope the creation of the body will restore access to city hall that some feel was lost in the mayoral transition.

Last week’s announcement that Chicago’s City Council would create its first Asian-American Caucus is eliciting both praise and puzzlement from some observers skeptical of its influence.

The driving force behind the new 14-member caucus is the city’s first Asian-American council member, Ameya Pawar (47th), who says the need for a more unified voice became apparent in conversations with constituents.

“What we heard over and over again was that, for example, you have a lot of family-owned businesses,” he said, “and a city inspector goes in to talk to a business about an issue, and there almost always seems to be a language barrier.” Pawar said this results in tense relations between minority business owners and the city.

“While the city has done a really good job in making sure that certain documents and postings are available in Spanish and in Polish, we’ve got to do a better job in making sure that it’s available in more languages,” Pawar added. “We have to pass a comprehensive language access ordinance, so that if I’m a business owner, (or if) I’m a constituent who feels like I need to talk to the Commission on Human Relations because I’ve been harassed, that I can speak to someone and have my complaint translated from Hindi to English.”

Currently only the city’s emergency services, such as 911, have access to Language Line, a service that provides telephonic translation for government agencies. Pawar’s ordinance, which he said will be offered in conjunction with the mayor’s Office of New Americans, would require other city departments to assess their language needs. If more departments require the service, Pawar would like them to have access to the Language Line. 

“So I think one thing I want to address in the very near term, and I think the caucus is going to work on, is identifying funds for next year’s budget, or at a minimum 2015’s budget, to expand the language bank offerings,” Pawar said.

Some Asians in Chicago say they’ve felt frozen out of city affairs lately, starting when Mayor Rahm Emanuel consolidated or disbanded the advisory councils of the Commission on Human Relations two years ago. The African, Latino, Arab and Asian advisory councils were rolled into a single Equity Council that now advises the Commission.

The ethnic advisory councils, by some accounts, were meaningful forums that brought issues to light under former mayors like Harold Washington. Some say that under former mayor Richard M. Daley, they atrophied into something less – a place where minorities were given nominal access to city staff, but that ultimately accomplished little. Nonetheless, the councils were once a first point of contact for Chicagoans who wanted to bring complaints of discrimination to the city’s attention.

“I have heard through members of the community that they’re having a little bit of a difficult time finding the right person,” said Chris Zala, former Director of the Council on Asian Affairs to the Commission on Human Relations. Zala said many still come to him with problems, and he tries to direct them to city departments that might be helpful.

The new Equity Council has several Asian-American members, but two years after the dissolution of its predecessors, it has yet to gain traction.

“We’re still in our first year as a council,” said Josina Morita, a member of the Equity Council. “So we’re still doing our listening tours across the city and then we’ll be identifying our points of strategy later in the process.”

Many community members were alarmed at the disbandment of the advisory councils, and the sudden relative lack of high-level Asian-American policy advisors in Emanuel’s office (unlike the previous Daley administration). All this came just as census numbers affirmed Asian-Americans as the fastest-growing minority group in the state, and one of the fastest in Chicago.

So will the creation of an Asian-American Caucus at the legislative level ameliorate the losses?

“Perhaps it can help relay the community’s concerns and ideas and concerns on up to the executive branch in one way or another,” said Zala. “That’s my hope.”

One interesting observation about the new caucus: of the 12 members that were originally announced on the caucus (two were added later in the week), Pawar’s ward contains the smallest percentage of Asian-Americans, just over 7 percent. The council member whose ward has the highest percentage, at 34 percent, is Ald. James Balcer (11th).

An organizer who lobbies elected officials on behalf of Asian-American interests said Balcer was not open to consideration of a proposed ward map that would have kept the majority of Chinatown-area residents in one district. The source asked to remain anonymous because of the need to maintain a working relationship with city officials, but added that the rebuff wasn’t surprising. Referring to other community organizations that work with Asian-Americans in Chicago, the organizer added, “What they’ve told us privately is it’s been difficult to get some aldermen to be responsive.”

Ultimately, many see the success of the caucus resting squarely on Pawar’s shoulders. Pawar has declared that he intends to hold office for no more than two terms. His efforts may be buoyed by the growth in Chicago’s Asian-American population. Community organizers have mounted successful voter registration campaigns over the last several years, and have gained state-wide influence with the creation of an Asian-American Caucus in the General Assembly. These changes may persuade Pawar’s fellow caucus members that it’s time, again, to keep a seat at the table reserved for Asian-Americans in Chicago.

Members of the City of Chicago’s Asian-American Caucus: Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), Danny Solis (25th), Patrick O’Connor (40th), Dick Mell (33rd), Walter Burnett (27th), Bob Fioretti (2nd), Will Burns (4th), Joe Moore (49th), James Balcer (11th), Debra Silverstein (50th), Harry Osterman (48th), James Cappleman (46th), Marge Laurino (39th), Brendan Reilly (42nd).

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.

Correction note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Pawar declared he would hold office for one term only.